Recently, I published a blog post Parents, Get Realistic About Your Expectations For Young Kids. I knew I hit a universal nerve when I received a copy that had been translated into German. Many parents wrote that they wanted to learn more about having realistic expectations, but also struggled with what rules and expectations were OK. To find answers I turned to my favorite consultant, my daughter, Alissa Levy Chung, child psychologist and parent of three children.
Laurie Levy: Several readers wondered if not punishing their young children for inappropriate behavior would lead to undisciplined children.
It is critical to distinguish between discipline and punishment. Discipline actually means to teach, and it is a much more useful concept for parenting and one that becomes increasingly important in early and middle childhood.
In the early years, however, because of children's limited regulatory abilities, much of the work is on the parents and caregivers. It is up to the adults to set up situations that will allow children to succeed and to set limits to keep them safe and teach them how to treat others. For example, it is not realistic to take a hungry toddler into a store and expect her not to throw a tantrum about wanting to buy a treat. It is up to the adult to feed the child before, to bring a snack, or to agree to buy a healthy snack in the store. Similarly, taking an overtired child anywhere will frequently result in a tantrum of some kind.
If a child makes an unreasonable demand (e.g., wanting to buy something that is not needed), you can absolutely say no. A toddler may then begin to protest or throw a tantrum, and that behavior is completely normal. You may be able to redirect the child before there is a tantrum by singing a song or offering a toy brought from home (toddlers are very distractible) or may have to abandon the store, at least temporarily, to wait out the tantrum. There is no need to give in to a toddler's unreasonable demands. But there is also no call to punish the child for having the tantrum. That part is beyond the control of a young child.
Toddlers will become preschoolers, and the capacity to control their behaviors and emotions will improve with support from their caregivers. I do recommend making a quick decision about whether or not you will grant the child's request. It is okay to say yes sometimes and no sometimes as long as you stick with your decision so that your child knows what to expect. It is important not to teach the child that begging or screaming will ultimately get you to change your mind and give in to the request.
LL: Other parents were looking for resources or books to help them develop strategies for dealing with challenging behaviors that also respected the child's development.
The website Zero to Three offers a wealth of resources for parents of young children, including what to expect developmentally and ideas about ways to manage challenging behaviors. I would also recommend Dr. T. Berry Brazelton's Touchpoints books about parenting and development. For a more scholarly focus on toddler emotional development, I highly recommend Dr. Alicia Lieberman's Emotional Life of the Toddler.
LL: What about the parent who wrote that she is also dealing with homelessness after fleeing an abusive marriage. She really wants to parent her children differently but at the same time feels overwhelmed by her situation.
Her expectations for herself in such a stressful situation are very high. I want to tell her: You have been through a trauma and are parenting with very few resources. Be sure to take care of yourself first because if your mental and physical health are in order, you will be in a better position to care for your children. There are resources in every community but parents have to know how to access them. Good places to start are legal aid, local social services, or school social workers.
LL: One young couple, thinking ahead to when they have children, worried about the "ghosts in the nursery." The woman described her parents as totalitarian, while her boyfriend came from an extremely permissive background. They are searching for middle ground and looking for resources broken down by age that spell out child development and what experts say is the best way to manage behavior.
It is wonderful that this couple is thinking about these issues ahead of time. One of the greatest advantages in parenting is having received supportive parenting oneself. So much of what we do as parents comes from split second decision-making and happens in emotionally charged situations. It is amazing how quickly a distressed infant or toddler can bring us to our knees as parents! So, we tend to fall back on what is familiar, which is why it can be difficult to translate reading a parenting book into daily actions.
Dr. Spock once said to "trust yourself," but for parents who did not have supportive caregivers growing up, trusting themselves is a complicated proposition. Based on parenting research, my three top recommendations for this couple are: 1) Do a little therapy for yourself so that you understand your own vulnerabilities when it comes to emotion regulation and relationships. 2) Make your relationship with one another as strong and supportive as possible. 3) Surround yourself with a supportive community of peers and elders who can help you in your parenting journey. These three factors have been found to help parents avoid replicating the kind of parenting they received.
LL: Does having realistic expectations mean rules are out for young children? For example, should a 20-month-old be expected to eat meals in his high chair rather than on one of his parents' laps?
It is absolutely fine to establish some developmentally appropriate expectations of your child as long as you are there to follow through with them. Toddlers cannot be expected to follow the rules on their own. To extend on the high chair example, if you want your child to eat in a particular place, your job is to be consistent and positive about placing your child in the high chair and to sit with him/her during the meal. You will not be able to control what or how much your child eats, however, and that is a common battleground for toddlers, who are learning to assert their independence in the few ways that they can. As long as your toddler is growing, it is fine to offer a range of healthy foods and then to call the meal over even if he/she is picking at the food. Also, do not be surprised if your toddler does not want to sit in the chair for very long. Once he/she is done eating, you will have to be very entertaining to keep your child in the chair. Your child's temperament will also be a factor here, as active children are less willing to sit still. Expect that if you change the routine for any reason (e.g., illness or travel) that it will take a few days of consistency to return to normal.
I'm so lucky to have my daughter to help me with the academic side of this. My own knowledge is a combination of the wisdom that comes with age, parenting my own three children, and lots of experience with young kids as an early childhood educator. I must confess that being a grandparent has allowed me the luxury of observing what motivates my grandkids and the patience to wait for the behavior to change. As a young parent, I was far more reactive and inconsistent. Sometimes, I expected too much but more often, because of my personality, I probably expected too little.
Grandparents often tell me two things: I wish I knew then what I know now, and having grandkids is life's ultimate do-over. Thus, looking back I can share these pearls of wisdom: Make sure you are being reasonable and realistic in what you expect your child to do. Take a deep breath and try to have empathy for your child's emotional development before you react. And remember that discipline and punishment are very different things.